As the omicron variant of COVID-19 emerges as a major concern for the public, inconsistent and overlapping messages from the White House response team risk causing confusion over the status of the variant, the efficacy of vaccines, and what the end game is as the virus continues to spread.
The Biden administration is simultaneously pushing for people to get their first shots if they haven't already, urging boosters for those already vaccinated, and warning that shots may need to be tweaked to account for the omicron variant. The administration has also enacted a travel ban on south African nations while acknowledging it won't stop the new variant's spread.
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“Today, the CDC has confirmed the first case of the omicron variant detected in the United States," White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients said in a statement. "As the President said last Friday, it was only a matter of time before the first case of omicron was detected in the U.S. We are prepared to meet this challenge with science and speed."
President Joe Biden is scheduled to share winter plans for fighting the virus on Thursday. But for the voting public outside Washington, any mixed messaging risks causing confusion about the White House's goals in both the short and long terms, said former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman Glen Nowak.
"Policies communicate," said Nowak, now a health and risk communications professor at the University of Georgia. "It communicates that this will be effective or useful, and if you aren't able to demonstrate the impact, that's one of the ways that science and public health officials can lose trust and lose credibility."
With so much still unknown about the omicron variant, such as how fast it spreads and how severely it infects, the sheer amount of attention being paid to it by the White House and the media could prove problematic. Nowak said he doesn't remember the delta variant receiving the same level of attention until it generated a sharp rise in overall cases.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked several times about message confusion during a Wednesday press briefing.
"Is the message evolving to 'get the vaccine and booster so you don't die or so you don't get really sick because you'll probably catch [COVID-19]?'" asked one reporter. Another asked if Biden is now saying he is "going to try to help people live amidst the virus" rather than shutting it down the way he promised on the campaign trail.
In both cases, Psaki responded that the White House's message is to get vaccinated and get booster shots if applicable. Biden has imposed a wide-reaching vaccine mandate toward that goal, which faces fierce opposition from Republicans, despite Zients's repeated admonition that the intent is "not to punish" but to protect workers.
Psaki made a similar claim about the southern Africa travel ban, saying the objective is "not to punish. It is to protect the American people." But the travel ban itself could imply a lack of confidence in vaccines, and leaders in South Africa blasted it as a hypocritical move that could discourage countries from disclosing future variants. Some studies suggest that travel bans alone don't do much good, which may prove to be the case with omicron.
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Nowak said disincentives such as the federal vaccine mandate often prove effective even if they aren't popular and that it's helpful to frame things positively.
But if a new vaccine is developed for omicron, that will raise its own round of questions, such as whether the new jab still protects against the delta variant.
The biggest risk of all as the pandemic nears its second anniversary is that the big-picture goals get lost in translation.
"Government agencies need to figure out, what does success look like?" Nowak said. "What are we trying to achieve? I think it has been unclear what the overall goal is with the messaging."